The Cello Suites : In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece, Paperback Book

The Cello Suites : In Search of a Baroque Masterpiece Paperback

3 out of 5 (1 rating)


One autumn evening, not long after ending a stint as a pop music critic, Eric Siblin attended a recital of Johann Sebastian Bach's Cello Suites.

There, something unlikely happened: he fell deeply in love with the music.

So began a quest that would unravel three centuries of mystery, intrigue, history, politics, and passion.

Part biography, part music history, and part literary mystery, "The Cello Suites" weaves together three dramatic narratives: the first features Bach and the missing manuscript of these mesmerisingly beautiful eighteenth-century pieces for solo cello; the next, the legendary cellist Pablo Casals and the historic discovery of the music in Spain in the late nineteenth century; and, the last, Eric Siblin's own infatuation with the suites in the twenty-first century.

This love affair leads Siblin to the back streets of Barcelona and a Belgian mansion; to interviews with world-renowned cellists; to archives, festivals, and conferences; and, even to cello lessons - all in pursuit of answers to the mysteries that continue to haunt this music more than 250 years after its composer's death. "The Cello Suites" is a lovingly written, true-life journey of discovery, fuelled by the transcendent power of a musical masterpiece.


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A philosophy lecturer of mine once remarked that the recently converted make the most passionate fundamentalists. Eric Siblin, a professedly retired rock critic (I'm not sure how one "retires" from a pastime) makes a good example. Stumbling across a performance of Bach's Cello Suites some years ago, Siblin was captivated, converted, and has since leapt into the study and exploration of these narrowly (but profoundly) celebrated pieces with great gusto. (Interestingly, I could find none of Siblin's rock criticism online anywhere. I was curious to see how good it was.) Being no more familiar than Siblin was with the Cello Suites, I bought myself a recording (Pierre Fournier's) and had it on high rotation while I read. For fellow neophytes, then, these are pieces for an unaccompanied tenor instrument that itself usually (but not always) fulfills the role of an accompaniment to a "treble" instrument like a violin. Bach's six Cello Suites span a couple of hours, and you'd be forgiven for supposing that it would be, therefore, a challenging listen. First go-round, for a non-enthusiast, it is. I must say, though, that having listened to it repeatedly over a week I find it bouncing uncontrollably - and pleasingly - around my head all day. But all the same, I don't think I'm ready to jettison Led Zeppelin just yet. There again, I'm not really the converting type. At any rate, on account of their inaccessibility the Cello Suites were commonly supposed, for a long while, to be simply rehearsal exercises. Which is where Siblin picks up the story. He explores the Suites in an organised, contrapuntal sort of way, through three lenses, each corresponding to movements in the Suites: firstly Bach's own biography; secondly the musical and political journey of 20th century Cello maestro Pablo Casals, punctuated and framed as it was by the Cello Suites, and thirdly through his own journey, both of discovery of Bach's own music, and through his research for this book. These accounts are interwoven cleverly and playfully and in a way the Baroque master surely would have approved of: according to the structure of the six suites themselves. The accounts themselves, however, are a little variable. Bach's biography is patiently and interestingly unfolded. I dare say the genuine aficionado won't find much new or enlightening in Siblin's exposition, but those with a more casual interest will: I hadn't realised, for example, that Bach's life ended in relative obscurity, and that his huge body of work only gained mass appeal long after his death. And I had never heard of Casals at all. To be sure, Siblin's framing of the Casals story was skillful and its overlay on the cello suites themselves was fascinating. It did feel somewhat wilful: sometimes one can push a construction past the point that it withstands careful examination and I suspect, in his enthusiasm to deliver a pleasing narrative, Siblin has done this. Bach's music might be famous for its almost mathematically careful structure; real life isn't like that. Siblin would have it that Casals, a Catalonian teenager, discovered a publication of the suites and singlehandedly turned the world on to them as a performance piece, and to the cello as a solo instrument. I have a feeling it might not be quite that cut and dried. The final strand, in which the author himself features, is the weakest. Partly, this is because Siblin himself is a neophyte; he isn't trained or steeped in the classical tradition (part of his story is his attempt to overcome that by taking cello lessons) and hence he has no particular locus standi to back his wild-eyed exegesis of the music, which just winds up sounding like fodder for pseud's corner in Private Eye. It just isn't interesting hearing about a random Canadian's attempts to learn the cello or sing in a Bach Cantata. Nor does his agenda help: Siblin goes hunting for an Anti-Semitism which almost certainly was illusory, and then has a whale of a time wrestling with the meagre evidence he does find: for example, the anti-Jewish agenda implicit in Bach's St. John Passion. But if there is such a thing, Bach certainly didn't put it there (St. John did), and by any account, including Siblin's, Bach himself had no interaction, let alone interest, in Judaism at any time in his life, most likely never having even met a Jewish person. Yet still Siblin crowbars it in, allowing a patently 20th century gloss to colour his thinking, even absurdly baulking at singing the word 'schnell' in the Cantata, presumably aggrieved at having to use a word frequently attributed to Gestapo officers in Commando magazine. But 'schnell' is simply the German word for 'fast'. So a curate's egg: the good parts, however, make this a recommended read for a non-specialist interested in a light and entertaining vista onto one of the more challenging corners of Bach's massive oeuvre.

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